Ask Labor Jane: Can We Stick to the Union but Keep Our Independence?

Unions are great — everybody should have one. But when it comes to actually organizing one, workers are faced with some thorny questions, because so many American unions have made horrible deals with employers that trade away rank-and-file workers’ right to fight.

A worker is surrounded by sparks from molten steel flowing into casts at the TAMCO steel mini mill on October 4, 2002 in Rancho Cucamonga, California. David McNew / Getty

Hi Jane!

I’m a shop floor organizer at a behavioral health agency. I’ve been working at the agency for over a year now, and we’ve managed to build up an organizing committee of ten (we’re halfway to our goal of twenty for 10 percent of the whole bargaining unit). Based on our momentum, we’re expecting to double that number by December.

It’s been a long, grueling, year that’s been rewarding as hell. We deal with all the major problems of the industry: low pay, dangerous working conditions, and a total lack of respect and disregard for the frontline workers who actually implement the treatment plans of our clients, who we are absolutely dedicated to. 

We’ve been working with the local of a national union who we feel, for the most part, fits with our industry and the direction it’s headed. The organizers have been super helpful in giving us meeting space and brainstorming ideas, but the organizing has all been done by us on the shop floor. The international is working on a national campaign for our industry, and I’ve mostly been satisfied with the resources they have dedicated and their vision. 

But recently at a meeting, an organizer suggested we pressure the company for neutrality by using techniques involving investigation of possible malfeasance, which I can attest is certainly there. Then, ideally, we would conduct a door-knocking campaign. While I think that pressuring the company through their malpractice could be an interesting tool, I’m afraid the international might be more interested in using political tactics to skirt around an actual organizing campaign that involves developing and building the worker power we have been working so hard to create — and in doing that, we’d be setting ourselves up for failure when it comes to the contract campaign.

I admit I may be overthinking this (this is all I think about!) or a bit paranoid, but I know the horror stories out there are true. How do we work with an international union while still maintaining our own independence and identity, and is door knocking a viable tool in our tool box, or could it be one of the shortcuts you warned us about?

Rank & File Organizer


Dear Rank & File Organizer,

Congratulations on the great work so far. The fact that the effort for you has become “all [you] think about” is a good sign. Before diving into what you’ve narrowed to your main question for this column, I can’t resist a few thoughts about the goal of 10 percent for the organizing committee by December and your comment, “based on momentum.”

One caution: often the early signers in the workplace are the easiest to get, and it can be easy to think, “wow, people are signing up, we got this!” when in fact, the first 25–30 percent is extremely different than getting the remaining workers. But taking you at your word here, you mean an organizing committee (OC) made up of 10 percent of the workers in the unit. If so, you are approaching this perfectly.

The question you pinpointed is actually two questions, interrelated. You aren’t being paranoid, you are being smart. First how to maintain autonomy inside a national union? It’s a very tough question that reflects the conundrum faced by so many workers who are not yet unionized.

I used your excellent question as an opportunity to call up my old mentor, Jerry Brown, the longtime leader of District 1199NE, to chew this over, because it’s such a serious topic.

The part of the description in your brief introduction that makes me most nervous is when you wrote, “The international is working on a national campaign for our industry.” For starters, there are national unions who, sadly, you just can’t trust when the situation involves them working on a national campaign.

In the past twenty years, the list of workers who are anxious to organize their workplace like you being burned in this scenario runs long. In many ways, if there was not a “national campaign,” you’d be safer, because when there is a larger national interest at stake, and the corporate employer places lots of shiny objects in front of the national union, the tendency is to sacrifice core worker rights that should never be used as bargaining chips.

If you were dealing with one independent agency, with no national union interest, you’d be in a much better position to hang onto your autonomy by, say, building the OC really strong, winning the election by a sizable margin with high worker-voter participation, and keeping everyone organized through your first contract fight.

Another factor that you and your colleagues will have to discuss: to which local union will you become affiliated? This matters because some locals have way better principles than others — and equally important, some large locals have enough power within their national union to stand up to the national and defend you, while others merely grovel to their headquarters for this or that favor.

So working against you is the national campaign, and the fact that you are small — 200 workers in one agency in a national campaign is, while hugely important for all of you and the patients, frankly, too small to matter to a national union. So the local matters, a lot.

Here’s are some questions you need to discuss with your team, then request a meeting with the local leadership of the national union to which you would be members and have a serious, nonconfrontational, positive, and very frank conversation. Among the most important questions to ask:

Will the decisions about our contract — including what we can fight for in the contract and how to fight for it — be made only by the members of our bargaining unit?

Will any issues be off the table because of some other agreement the national makes, using your good organizing as a prop or leverage against the employer as they advance their national goals?

Will you maintain your right to strike, or will that be traded away?

Did your organization ever reach an agreement with an employer saying certain places will not be organized? Did they ever reach an agreement saying local unions could not engage in a strike without permission of the international?

Certain national unions have made agreements with national employers to limit workers’ right to strike and take away members’ decisions about the terms of the contract. The best, or worst, example of this was the agreement reached between SEIU Local 775 and key national nursing home corporations, an agreement facilitated by the SEIU international union. Some of the workers wound up with a union, but others were forbidden to unionize. Many key terms were pre-negotiated and predetermined without any legitimate worker voice or power in setting the terms.

Safeguarding against this is a real challenge. Will (and can) the local union within the national union protect you against this kind of deal-making? You have to raise these concerns, again, in a totally open way — not as an attack, but as a real conversation. And then you have to decide, do you trust them?

The dilemma is that ideally you do want to be a union that is building power in your industry. But if you decide you can’t trust them, there might be other options for unions. But maybe they aren’t great.

You could decide to form your union with a union that will not do any of this to you, the United Electrical (UE) workers. But they might lack the power you ultimately need inside the behavioral health industry. You could form an independent union, and you’d have way less resources, but you wouldn’t wind up a poker chip who gets the bad end of a deal. The independent route isn’t great for a group of 200 workers in a large multinational, unless you have some sources of leverage with local politicians or other power players who can magnify your power. This is a little hard to imagine, but possible.

Forming an independent union is a real option, and a good one, for some workers, in some places. For example, it works fine for registered nurses who can win NLRB elections in big hospitals in blue states. It could work for workers considered harder to replace, who have some workplace power, in key or big facilities where their unity and skill set buffers them. But being honest, 200 workers up against a national employer — who I am guessing is no saint — is a serious challenge.

I think you need to have these conversations with the local, or perhaps, national union, then go with your group of worker leaders to some quiet place and decide whether or not you can trust them. And the local is key.

Given the recent history, you are very wise to do your best to get a level of assurance by asking all the above questions. But no matter what, stick with it. Our ability to rid ourselves of the mess we currently find ourselves in in the United States requires doing exactly what you are doing: rebuilding working-class power from the bottom up.

With You,